It is generally true that social media does not create any problems of its own; it just amplifies the problems that already existed in society, in business, in media. (This, by the way, has nothing to do with Elon Musk – though I will say that I’ve never been happier in my decision to leave Twitter at the start of this year.)
So it is with TikTok, a platform that seems to have made our young hitmakers worse. It has made them lazier and less inspired, and the way that social media platform works is probably to blame.
On the day I wrote this, I listened to the whole U.K. Top 40, a thing I try to do every month or so. As a cultural critic, I tend to look at this as an obligation like watching Marvel films – it’s usually not a great experience, but it is good to keep up with the culture that is being consumed.
I don’t want this to become a “isn’t modern music terrible?” post – if nothing else, because that’s a depressing thing to write before you’ve hit 30. Indeed, there is some great music in the chart. At number one, for example, is Harry Styles’ “As It Was,” as worthy a chartopper as any. I also enjoyed listening to Dove Cameron’s sassy bisexual anthem “Boyfriend,” even if I’m not quite ready to learn who exactly Dove Cameron is. Plus a handful of other songs that are worth a second listen.
But there was also a lot of bad music. Every UK top 40 every compiled has had some clangers, but all of the worst songs on this chart were united by one thing – they were all songs that were built around large passages of other, better songs from the 1990s and 2000s.
The effect is like going to a surreal karaoke bar where everyone is singing or rapping a worse new song over a song you love. Here is every example I recognised from the current top 40, and the song they take their hook from:
“First Class” by Jack Harlow, (#2) – “Glamorous” by Fergie
“Baby” by Aitch (#4) – “Rock with U” by Ashanti
“Night Away (Dance)” by A1 x J1 (#15) – “On the Floor” by Jennifer Lopez
“Glad U Came” by Liilz (#21) – “Glad You Came” by The Wanted
“In My Head” by Lil Tjay (#28) – “Replay” by Iyaz
“Do It to It” by ACRAZE (#33) – “Do It to It” by Cherish (and also maybe “Oh” by Ciara, though it might just sound like it because “Do It to It” sounds so much like “Oh” in the first place)
That list doesn’t include similar, equally uninspired songs. Tracks like Luude’s “Down Under” (#11), a curious dance cover of the Men at Work one hit wonder, or Cat Burns’ “Go,” which sounds like it interpolates the riff of 2002’s “Romeo Done.” Even Elton John seems to be getting in on the game – his “Cold Heart” features not only Dua Lipa singing lyrics from “Rocket Man,” but also samples of three other John songs.
(And of course, there’s Ed Sheeran, whose “Bad Habits” sounds suspiciously like “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat. Surprising, as he so recently was so self-righteous after winning his copyright lawsuit).*
The fact that these songs sample other songs is not the problem. Sampling can be a tool to create some amazing music. Like Amerie’s “1 Thing.” The Avalanches’ “Since I Left You.” Madonna’s “Hung Up.” Ye’s “Power.” The entire career of Daft Punk.
Crucially, though, most of these samples draw their power from putting the sample into a new context. Like Destiny’s Child weaving R&B magic out of the rock riff of Stevie Nick’s “Edge of Seventeen” to make “Bootylicious,” or M.I.A. turning The Clash’s post-punk skank on “Straight to Hell” into the world music hip-hop of “Paper Planes.” Even Black Eyed Peas’ “The Time (Dirty Bit),” one of the worst songs ever recorded, tried to do something new with its use of the Dirty Dancing classic “Time Of My Life.”
The sample-based songs on the 2022 charts do not bother to recontextualize their sample. The only reason these songs work is because of the endorphin spike we get from the nostalgia associated with the track being sampled. The result does not feel playful, like a good sample should, but cynical.
In essence, these tracks are musical versions of reaction videos, one of the most common video genres on YouTube and TikTok. We’ve all seen them: An internet “personality” takes a piece of culture currently in the online zeitgeist, and films themselves watching it.
Nine times out of 10, it is more entertaining just to watch the thing being reacted to on its own. And so it is with these songs: They just make you want to listen to the original again.
Reaction videos were not invented by TikTok, but the social media platform made them easier than ever to create. There is even a dedicated button that allows you to create a reaction video.
What that reaction video entails is up to you. You can film yourself laughing at whatever your peers are clowning on a given day, or add your own color commentary. And, of course, you can take a short clip of a beloved song from the 1990s and the 2000s and film yourself rapping over it. Get enough views, and some record label is bound to try and turn that into an official song. And then it might be only a matter of time before you find yourself in the charts.
For sure, there are talented people on TikTok, but social media is not always great at promoting the most original ideas. With so many pieces of shortform content being made every second, it is difficult for any one piece of video to grab your attention.
So it would make sense that songs that the people who use the most obvious samples would be the most successful. A recognisable sample instantly fires off a feeling of nostalgia in your brain, which is as good as anything at making you engage with a piece of content. And the quicker your brain can pick up the sample the better – be too clever, and by the time the viewer’s brain has recognised the song you’re sampling, they have already scrolled past.
Like on any platform that rewards posts the more engagement they get, TikTok also encourages references that are middlebrow and mass-culture. Among the samplers of the past (your Daft Punks and DJ Shadows) the competition was over who could use the most obscure sample. TikTok, however, encourages a race to the middle – It is no coincidence, for example, that of the six songs I listed earlier, three of them contain samples from songs that reached number one in the UK charts. **
Songs with maximum familarity encourage maximum engagement with a video, which gives that video the maximum chance that it will get enough hits to reach the notice of a record label.
This is essentially a bad thing for chart music, disincentivizing originality over the sort of lazy 90s/00s nostalgia that has launched a million Buzzfeed listicles and led thousands of teens to buy jeans that are too big.
The current system is a win for the record industry – they can release songs they can already guess will be successful based on their success on TikTok, and the smarter ones can even get a double payday thanks to the renewed attention brought to the songs the new tracks are sampling.
But like most things that are good for the record industry (and streaming in general), it is bad for musicians in general. It creates a system which does not encouragelabels to support an artist past their viral moment, and does not encourage those artists to develop themselves past the point of just looking at their old iTunes libraries for the most famous riffs to steal.
Though there will be always be original artists, it is easy to see a music landscape built on one-hit wonders, where you are only as good as the obvious pop earworm you can recycle and the dance challenge you can tag it to. TikTok is taking us ever closer to midnight for artists who want to engage with the past creatively.
(It is also spelling doom for anyone who ever wanted to release a song over two minutes long, but that’s a matter for another day…)
*For legal reasons, I will make it clear that it is ONLY MY OPINION that “Bad Habits” sounds exactly like “Smalltown Boy.”
** “Glad You Came,” “On The Floor and “Replay,” fact fans.
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